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October 10, 2013

SEARCHING for a CHANCELLOR: Campus forums

CLFaculty, staff, students, alumni describe the characteristics they want in Pitt’s next leader

Pittsburgh campus

The last — and best attended — of three chancellor search forums on the Pittsburgh campus brought about 40 people to the William Pitt Union for a wide-ranging discussion on the University’s future challenges and the traits and experiences they would like to see in Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg’s successor.

Trustee Eva Blum, search committee chair, led the meeting, flanked by Provost Emeritus James V. Maher, who is the committee’s vice chair; Secretary of the Board of Trustees and Assistant Chancellor Jean Ferketish, search committee secretary, and Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kathy Humphrey, a search committee member.

Chancellor search committee members Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kathy Humphrey, Provost Emeritus James V. Maher, committee vice chair, and trustee Eva Blum, committee chair, listen to input from the University community at a Sept. 30 forum in the William Pitt Union ballroom.

Chancellor search committee members Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kathy Humphrey, Provost Emeritus James V. Maher, committee vice chair, and trustee Eva Blum, committee chair, listen to input from the University community at a Sept. 30 forum in the William Pitt Union ballroom.

Staff Association Council President Rich Colwell, the search committee’s staff representative, and Amelia Brause, student representative, were in the audience.

About half of the attendees — most of them students or alumni — approached the microphone to offer their thoughts during the Sept. 30 session.

As in other forums, many speakers touted Nordenberg’s abilities and emphasized the importance of continuing the progress and maintaining the status and reputation Pitt has earned under his leadership over the past two decades. Several emphasized Nordenberg’s engaging manner, his ability to build relationships and consensus, his strong values, community connections and understanding of political dynamics as skills Pitt’s next chancellor likewise should have.

Citing Nordenberg’s accomplishments, alumnus William Sulkowski urged the committee not to seek radical change in the next Pitt leader but to find someone who meshes with Pitt’s culture.

“My biggest charge to the committee: If it’s not broken, then don’t (seek) a big fix,” he said, adding that small fixes always are necessary and open for discussion. “We need somebody that fits our model, not the other way around.”

Fiscal challenges

Alumna Susan Stewart

Alumna Susan Stewart

Alumna Susan Stewart, who said she has an endowed a scholarship for women’s softball, expressed concern about college costs.

She asked the committee to poll candidates on whether they think the current model for higher education is sustainable. “And if it is, why? And if they feel that it isn’t, what would be their future model for higher education? I’m very concerned about the cost that families have to bear,” she said.

Alumnus Sam Ruta, who commended Nordenberg’s ability to advocate for Pitt in Harrisburg, predicted more battles for government funding ahead. “The new chancellor will have to be extremely knowledgeable of state and federal structures and funding and how the state and federal government decides how much you get,” he said. “The new chancellor is going to have to be able to take off the gloves. She or he is going to have to battle. It’s going to be one terrible confrontation between state and federal officials and the University of Pittsburgh.”

Alumnus Mike Radinsky went further in his assessment of possible financial challenges to come. “It’s ridiculous, the lack of funding we have in the state and I don’t see that changing,” he said.

“There may come a time when whoever leads this university next will have to really seriously consider taking this university private. So this person that we bring in should have some experience and maybe the ability to think outside the box. That may be necessary with the challenges that we’ve been talking about.”

Radinsky also took up the issue of Pitt’s athletics culture. Citing other universities where athletics is “out of control,” he commended Nordenberg for having the respect of Pitt’s coaches, athletes and athletics director. “It’s really unusual for that to happen,” he said.

“At the top of my bucket list is to see the University in the Final Four before I die. But I don’t want to see it at the risk of something like this,” he said, displaying the Sept. 16 Sports Illustrated cover featuring its investigation of the Oklahoma State football program.

“Another scandal involving athletics. This is not the way we want to go about our process,” he said. “Chancellor Nordenberg has kept this process under control. … I’d like to have seen more wins along the way, but the way we’ve done it is the way it needs to be done.”

Seeking diversity

Black Action Society President Chandel Boozer asked for leadership with a dedication to increasing faculty diversity, noting that it could increase retention among African-American students, some of whom may have only one professor “who is like them,” she said.

Graduate student Timothy Parenti agreed that diversity is important, urging Pitt’s leadership to continue to strive for it.

Valuing teaching

Faculty member Kevin Kearns

Faculty member Kevin Kearns

“I had fabulous professors,” said alumna Gretchen Monahan. “The chancellor needs to continue to get quality educators.”

Kevin Kearns, a faculty member in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and director of the Johnson Institute for Responsible Leadership, told the committee: “It’s very likely you’re going to select someone who has not been in the classroom on a day-to-day basis for quite some time,” urging them to inquire into candidates’ backgrounds in teaching.

“What kind of teacher were they when they were teaching? Not just that they filled a spot on the faculty, but were they truly distinguished as educators? Did their students respect them and were they held in esteem in that critically important part of our mission?”

Kearns said, “One of the things that Mark brought to the task was that he was not terribly far removed from the classroom himself when he was appointed chancellor.

“He was a dean, he had been interim provost and interim chancellor, but he was an exceptional educator before that. Not just a teacher, not just someone who was once on the faculty of the law school. But he was one of the best law school faculty,” Kearns said.

“I think there’s something that comes from that. And it’s not managerial ability, it’s not strategic ability, it’s not necessarily even leadership ability, but it’s a deep personal understanding of the mission and a deep personal understanding of students who are here.”

Student Government Board President Gordon Louderback

Among the participants offering comments was Student Government Board President Gordon Louderback.

Relating to students

Alumna Susan Heiss, a former Pitt staff member, emphasized the need for a chancellor who can relate to students. “It is the ability to connect with each and every student that I think we definitely should pay attention to,” she said.

“I would like a chancellor who, when standing on the street corner, can turn to students and say: ‘Are you on your way to lunch? What class did you just come from?’ Who can go to the Towers, pick up a lunch tray and sit at a table with the students. Not every student is a rock star but every student is important,” Heiss said.

“The chancellor should not be invisible,” said epidemiology staffer and alumna Pat Wehman, adding that he or she shouldn’t just be seen in photos handing out awards. “There are thousands of faculty, staff and students who never receive an award. I’d like to be able to have somebody that I can go up to and talk to once in a while.”

Brandon Benjamin, president of the Rainbow Alliance, asked for a chancellor who will support and serve students and who is willing to hear students’ views on issues that affect the University’s future direction.

Searching close to home

Several speakers expressed a preference for selecting a new chancellor with Pitt ties. Alumnus Burton Comensky said, “I would like a chancellor to come from the University itself, knowing everybody here.”

Wehman agreed: “I’d like to see an inside person that has some kind of ties to the faculty, the staff of the institution and the families at large,” she told the panel. “I’d like to see a local person rise up.”

In noting his desire for a new leader who fits Pitt’s culture, Sulkowski said, “I like the idea of a national search because there may be somebody out there.” However, he added, “I do not think that we need to go, for instance, to Yale or Harvard to find somebody.  That person may be sitting in this room or in the University somewhere.”

Pitt senior Sarah Winston urged the board to seek a candidate with a Pitt diploma. “I think you all should look for alumni of this institution… I think we really have a very unique experience here at Pitt.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Bradford campus

BRADFORD — Participants in Pitt-Bradford’s chancellor search forum said they are seeking a new leader who will recognize the role of Pitt’s regional campuses both as part of the Pitt system and within their communities.

In addition to expressing some of the same broad concerns that arose at other forums — keeping tuition affordable amid stagnant state funding, increased competition for declining numbers of college-bound students and the changing face of higher education itself — commenters at the Oct. 2 session in UPB’s Frame-Westerberg Commons also spoke out about issues closer to home.

Admissions staff member Bob Dilks noted that while Pitt’s nationally ranked programs and stature as a major research institution have attracted elite students to the Pittsburgh campus, the regional campuses serve a different marketplace. “We don’t want to forget about or lose track of the large population that the regionals serve well,” he said.

Political science faculty member Stephen Robar, associate dean of academic affairs, commented that amid potential changes in the structure of public higher education in Pennsylvania and the rising role of technology including online education and MOOCs, there will be both an opportunity and a challenge for the new chancellor to revisit and redefine Pitt’s mission system-wide.

Robar advocated for examining the aspects that have made Pitt successful in recent years and “energizing that trajectory,” as well as assessing “how we commit structurally, institutionally to a region. That’s where the branch campus mission comes in.”

Robar said there is good leadership throughout Pitt, adding that the new chancellor should have the ability to work in partnership with those leaders to implement a vision for the University’s future.

Ray Geary, executive director for continuing education and regional development, emphasized UPB’s benefit to the region’s businesses in terms of workforce training and business assistance, as well as the role the campus plays in offering noncredit programs that connect the community to the University. He said he’d like the new chancellor to be supportive of those aspects of the campus’s mission.

Pitt-Bradford faculty and staff listen as Ray Geary, executive director for continuing education and regional development, standing, comments at the Oct. 2 chancellor search committee forum in UPB’s Frame-Westerberg Commons.

Pitt-Bradford faculty and staff listen as Ray Geary, executive director for continuing education and regional development, standing, comments at the Oct. 2 chancellor search committee forum in UPB’s Frame-Westerberg Commons.

Steven Hardin, UPB’s vice president and dean of academic affairs, said the new chancellor will need to understand Pitt’s five different campuses, each with its own unique demographic.

Christina Graham, director of student activities and a Pitt-Johnstown alumna, agreed that it will be important for the new chancellor to know each campus’s distinct personality, adding that what works well on one campus may not necessarily work well University-wide.

Yara Elbeshbishi, president of UPB’s Student Government Association, added that she views the different environments Pitt’s rural and urban campuses offer, as well as the different types of students each campus attracts, as opportunities for the University to expand in multiple dimensions.

Several participants expressed a desire for a leader with experience in a multicampus system. Elbeshbishi added that it’s important that the new chancellor is personable and approachable to students. Other desired qualities include an entrepreneurial spirit, political savvy, fundraising ability, a global world-view and a willingness to take risks.

Vision — and proof of success in implementing it — also was a desired characteristic.

Kimberly Weinberg, assistant director of communications and marketing, said she’d like to see a leader with a broader world view enhanced by experience outside academia in order to negotiate the University’s position in society.

Tracee Howell, executive associate to the campus president, said she would like the new chancellor to have recent teaching experience. Biology faculty member Orin James said he’d like to see someone who had moved through the faculty ranks, in order to understand firsthand faculty concerns.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Greensburg campus

GREENSBURG — Devotion to undergraduate education is high on the list of qualities the Pitt-Greensburg community would like to see in Pitt’s next chancellor.

Visible, accessible, politically savvy and astute in business also were among the traits mentioned as more than a dozen faculty and staff members gathered at the Campana Chapel to offer their input at a chancellor search forum on the UPG campus.

Trustee Jack D. Smith, the immediate past-president of the Pitt Alumni Association,  chairman of the Department of Orthopedics for Excela Health System in Greensburg and a search committee member, led the Sept. 25 forum.


Jack D. Smith, a Pitt trustee and member of the chancellor search committee, led a recent forum at Pitt-Greensburg to hear input from the University community on the challenges and opportunities they see for Pitt and the traits and experience they desire in its next chancellor.

Faculty member Frank Wilson, president of Greensburg’s faculty senate, prefaced his desire with a nod to how Pitt’s administration has established the University as a world-class research institution. “I think they succeeded in a phenomenal way. I don’t expect any subsequent chancellor to give up on that. I think they’re going to — and rightfully should — try to maintain that kind of status,” he said.

“But what I hope we can see is that the next chancellor will put that same kind of effort on elevating all levels of the undergraduate teaching. …That is going to be the primary challenge to higher education,” Wilson said.

“I’m not saying it’s been a record of failure,” he said. “Maybe the next chancellor’s special mark would be to elevate us so that we’re seen unambiguously at the top levels of undergraduate teaching in the country. And that we will be the right answer to why is a college education worth it,” he said, noting that the value of higher education is being called into question in society today.

Susan Isola, UPG’s director of media relations, said, “Because the future of higher education is such an unknown, there’s an opportunity to create our own future.”

Philosophy faculty member William Rued, UPG’s humanities division chair, said, “I look at the future of higher education right now with a big question mark over it — in terms of what is that going to look like in the future,” noting that one challenge facing Pitt’s next chancellor will be to “find a way to develop undergraduate education in really positive directions and make it available.”

Rued said the next chancellor must have a vision “for what undergraduate education could be” and must address the issues of “really identifying and drawing from what is really most valuable from our past and on the values of the academy.”

He’d like to see a chancellor who can resist the business model that is on the rise in higher education. “I understand the need to be savvy business-wise,” Rued said, adding that he or she also must be able to “combine that and see what is valuable in what the University has been and can be.”

Rued emphasized the importance of interpersonal relations “in having education take place as a group of people meeting together and having real face-to-face relationships and the spark of intellectual excitement that can happen in a community where people are really interested in investigating and sharing ideas.”

English faculty member Judith Vollmer added that the new chancellor should have an interest in fostering and maintaining a sense of community among students, faculty and staff. Others added that they want someone with the vision to unite people within the University and across society — someone who views the work of the University as contributing to a more cohesive society and as a means to fight widening gaps among the social classes.

Psychology faculty member Kristen Asplin said she’d like the next chancellor to be an advocate who can convince the governor and legislators “that we are worth publicly investing in — to stop either flat funding or reducing … and to go out and tell people that education is worthwhile,” she said.

She noted the importance of understanding that large and small schools alike have something to contribute. “We shouldn’t just keep the ones that are generating the most money.”

The next chancellor’s background

Most commenters favored being open to candidates with a mix of business and academic experience, although English faculty member Sayre Greenfield advocated for the value of candidates from academia who have a proven track record of success at other institutions.

“Not all academics are completely hopeless in practical terms,” Greenfield argued, drawing laughter from his colleagues. “I would find nothing wrong with someone who decided to dedicate their life not to business but to academia and believes in it strongly.”

Dave Robinson, UPG’s director of computing and telecommunications, said he views a love for education as more important than institutional experience alone on a candidate’s resume.  Business acumen would be good, but such candidates also need to demonstrate “passion for what education stands for and want to follow that through,” he said.

Asplin pointed out that corporate models of managing education haven’t always succeeded, commenting that she’d like the board to consider candidates who have at least some direct experience in education. “I don’t think entirely business would work.”

Vollmer said the University’s next leader must be a good listener and a dynamic advocate. “The listening part is really important,” she said. “That means someone who has an academic or scholarly background and an interest in humanities, an interest in the core of what we try to impart in our students.”

Wilson commented, “I’m not sure that I want someone who’s spent their whole life in academia and is steeped in that culture. But I also don’t want a hardnosed business type either.”

He’d like the next chancellor to have both practical experience and an appreciation for higher education: “Someone who can come in and not be mystified by our notion that we’re trying to develop the liberal arts model for the 21st century,” he said, adding that the right candidate also would value that concept: “That it’s not just cheesy but actually would have a kind of substance to it.”

Frank Wilson, president of the Pitt-Greensburg faculty senate, center, speaks out at the Sept. 25 chancellor search forum at the Greensburg campus’s Campana Chapel.

Frank Wilson, president of the Pitt-Greensburg faculty senate, center, speaks out at the Sept. 25 chancellor search forum at the Greensburg campus’s Campana Chapel.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Titusville campus

TITUSVILLE — Pitt-Titusville’s chancellor search forum elicited many ideas for traits desired in a new University leader, but what staff and faculty wanted most was a person who would know how to make the regional campuses prosper.

UPT was reorganized administratively in May 2012, with Pitt-Bradford President Livingston Alexander placed in charge of this smallest Pitt regional, which offers associate degrees. Its uncertain future colored the Sept. 25 forum in Henne Auditorium, which drew 22 people and was led by search committee secretary B. Jean Ferketish, who is also secretary of the Board of Trustees and assistant chancellor.

Those in attendance asked for Mark Nordenberg’s replacement, set to start in August 2014, to have competency, integrity, moral character and vision, and to be deliberate in his or her decision-making and approachable by everyone from students to the media.

Mostly, however, they wanted a person who would understand and best use the regionals to make the entire University system flourish.

Campus Dean David E. Fitz suggested choosing someone who had experience leading a flagship campus with regionals that had varying missions and services.

Said Cricket Wencil-Tracey, assistant to the executive director of enrollment management: “I’d like someone who was familiar with our region” and someone who believes that the education provided to regional residents, and the professionals whom the regionals add to local communities, outweigh the need for those campuses to turn a profit by themselves.

Ronald Shoup, visiting instructor of mathematics, suggested selecting someone who values the resources of staff, faculty, the board and the community, “and looks for ways to utilize these resources in the decision-making process.

“It’s a challenge to have a chancellor who is a visionary and who can look at the picture in its entirety — not only what can be a successful future for the University of Pittsburgh main but for a way to make all the branch campuses valuable assets to that bright future and to have the chancellor become familiar with what we offer and what we can offer.”

Added Tammy Knapp, director of public and alumni relations: “We’d like this chancellor to spend time in all the regional campuses, talk to the students and find out what our Pitt-Titusville students are looking for — and hear it from the other regionals as well.”

Assuring UPT’s future

Those in attendance had as many suggestions for improving Pitt-Titusville’s prospects as they had for the prospective chancellor.

Now that the baby boomers’ children have moved beyond college age, “we have struggled, as a lot of campuses have, in enrolling students,” noted Shoup. “One of the primary challenges is in trying to be able to recruit in an atmosphere where we have fewer high-school graduates in Pennsylvania … So we have a challenge in not only recruiting students but recruiting capable students.”

The uncertainty of the campus’s future has harmed recruitment in the last year, contended Wencil-Tracey.

Now, with Clarion University, just 43 miles away, announcing 40 layoffs (more than half of them faculty) in August, as well as the closure of its college of education, “I think this might be a better year for us.” She also credited chief enrollment officer Marc L. Harding with sending increasing numbers of students to the regionals in the past year.

Several UPT employees pressed for greater numbers of associate degrees, particularly those linked to areas of burgeoning employment locally, such as the energy industry. They also asserted that improvements in campus facilities in recent years have helped UPT maintain and improve its image.

“Those have been watched by students, faculty and community members at large,” noted Shoup. “Parents and other visitors notice and welcome them.” When Haskell Memorial Library’s learning center was expanded this fall, “all of a sudden people are flocking to our library. I’d like to show them we are extending open arms and nice facilities to them. We really need to be competitive.”

Said Wencil-Tracey: “The improvements over the past year have given the students a better impression and so our retention rate has gone up.” In 2012, the last year for which figures are available, the retention rate was 61.2 percent for those returning from the previous year, compared to 48.3 percent in 2011.

“I would hope that the new chancellor would bring an understanding of what a two-year college is all about,” concluded Mary Ann Caton, chair of liberal arts studies and history faculty member.

“It’s difficult in Titusville to make that case to a receptive audience … I think we can have a niche in the Pitt system.”

After the forum, Caton added: “I think our survival is at stake. It’s just a matter of making the case. We just need advocates in Oakland. Pitt has a wonderful presence in Titusville.”

—Marty Levine

Filed under: Feature,Volume 46 Issue 4

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